Snacking: America's 4th Meal
By Carolyn Richardson
Whether you call it noshing, grazing, or nibbling, if you’re an American, chances are you’re doing it. A new study revealed that almost 100% of Americans have a snack between meals. In addition to an increase in snacking since the ‘70’s, Americans' snacking has become a larger amount of caloric intake than it once was, accounting for about 580 calories a day according to Richard D. Mattes, Ph.D., professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University. This amount of calories exceeds the average calorie count allowed for a meal according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) average 2,000 calorie dietary guidelines.
What’s a Snack?
A scientific definition for what constitutes a snack is fleeting. A study posted in the Journal of Nutrition, in examining the self-reported food consumption of adult Americans, defined a snack as food eaten within 15 minutes during food or drink/beverage breaks over and above three principal meals of the day. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers found that snacking makes up about 25% of caloric intake in Americans' diet. Additionally, the study found the percentage of snacks per day has increased overall between 1977 and 2006, with the most snacks attributed to adults aged 40 to 59 years old. The increase in caloric intake for each snack as well as the portion size of each snack, has also increased among all adults, and was largest in those between the ages of 19 and 39.
Top 5 Snacks by Calories
Led by Carmen Piernas and Barry M. Popkin of the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a chart laid out the snacks with the highest calories. Those were: desserts including cakes, cookies, pies, bars, ice cream, and gelatin desserts; salty snacks such as crackers, chips, popcorn, and pretzels; other snacks defined as candies, nuts and seeds, and ready to eat cereals; sweetened beverages, and juices/fruit.
Drinking Your Snack
Presented at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo, Mattes’ research found that 50% of the calories consumed through snacking come from beverages. Whether it’s a smoothie or a latte, a suggested 290 calories of liquid is a lot: about the same as a McDonald’s Cheeseburger or a Subway Turkey Sandwich. Mattes’ adds that many don’t equate beverages with consuming a lot of calories and that may make it more difficult for them to recognize the big impact drinks have on their caloric intake.
Will Snacking Cause Weight Gain?
Because almost 100% of Americans eat snacks, there’s no indication that snacking itself causes weight gain. Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists puts it plainly: “One person’s snack is another person’s meal and vice versa.” And Mattes’ adds, “If your snacks add a lot of calories that are not offset by eating less at other times or increasing physical activity, it will cause weight gain.” A tidbit of what foods to snack on came from Nancy Auestad, PhD, of the Dairy Research Institute in an email, who said “Choosing nutrient-rich snacks that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lower fat dairy products can help consumers meet dietary recommendations.” And according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the same foods she suggests for snacking are associated with weight loss.
What percentage of your daily caloric intake comes from snacks? What foods do you snack on?